God of the Week: Hestia (Vesta)

God of the Week 05/24/2010: Hestia (Vesta)

Hestia (Roman name Vesta) was the ancient Greek goddess of the hearth. She was the protector of the family and home life. In her honor, a fire was kept burning in the home, and at temples dedicated in her honor. The Vestales, or Vestal Virgins, were priestesses, young girls, that tended the fire at her temple.

Hestia was the daughter of Cronus and Ehea. She was the goddess of Fire in its first application to the wants of mankind, hence she was essentially the presiding deity of the domestic hearth and the guardian spirit of man, and it was her pure and benign influence which was supposed to protect the sanctity of domestic life.

Now in these early ages the hearth was regarded as the most important and most sacred portion of the dwelling, probably because the protection of the fire was an important consideration, for if once permitted to become extinct, re-ignition was attended with extreme difficulty. In fact, the hearth was held so sacred that it constituted the sanctum of the family, for which reason it was always erected in the centre of every house. It was a few feet in height and was built of stone; the fire was placed on the top of it, and served the double purpose of preparing the daily meals, and consuming the family sacrifices. Bound this domestic hearth or altar were gathered the various members of the family, the head of the house occupying the place of honour nearest the hearth. Here prayers were said and sacrifices offered, and here also every kind and loving feeling was fostered, which even extended to the hunted and guilty stranger, who, if he once succeeded in touching this sacred altar, was safe from pursuit and punishment, and was henceforth placed under the protection of the family.

-E.M. Berens, The myths and legends of ancient Greece and Rome

The Vestal Virgins

The Vestalia was a festival held in honour of Vesta on the 9th of June, and was celebrated exclusively by women, who walked barefooted in procession to the temple of the goddess.

The priestesses of Vesta, called Vestales or Vestal Virgins, played a conspicuous part in these festivals. They were six in number, and were chosen — between the ages of six and ten — from the noblest families in Rome. Their term of office was thirty years. During the first ten years, they were initiated in their religious duties, during the second ten they performed them, and during the third they instructed novices. Their chief duty was to watch and feed the ever-burning flame on the altar of Vesta, the extinction of which was regarded as a national calamity of ominous import.

-ibid

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